Ask for help. Really. Then rinse and repeat.

ImageAs a church member and now clergyperson, I have collected stories about ways in which churches have or have not reached out to members who are in crisis or simply hurting.

In church communities, we expect that when someone is going through a hard time, the church community will respond in some way, with the healing and comforting touch of Christ. He was good at healing, calming fears, setting people straight.

I have heard stories of people leaving churches because no one reached out to them in a time of need. A common one is that the rector (head priest at an Episcopal church) didn’t visit them in the hospital, or no one came up to them after the service to offer kind words.

Before I say what I’m going to say, let me just say that when I was a teenager, I went through the death of a mother in a church community that knew my whole family well, and yet said absolutely nothing to me as a grieving 17-year-old. I do remember women from the church and neighbors coming with food for the funeral reception and looking at me sadly. So there was a pastoral response, but no checking in afterwards. Thank God I had good friends, wonderful teachers, and an attentive godfather who reached out to me, and they saved my life.

When my father died at a church where I was quite well known and visible as a choir director and cantor, the priest showed up for the official moment of death, but I did not hear from anyone at church, even though my dad and I were both long-time members there. Ditto at the same church when I went through a divorce soon after giving birth to my daughter.

So I definitely feel for people who say, “The church didn’t reach out to me.”

I know the other side, too: so many priests who have said, “No one told me she was in the hospital.” I’ve heard from people on pastoral care committees (on which I have served) who have brought meals or sent cards and then don’t know whether the person wants more calls or visits or wants to be left alone.

There seems to be a disconnect between those who need a response and those who are eager to respond. One of the most important realizations in my spiritual journey was that I needed to ask for help. And not surprisingly, I learned this from priests and fellow seminarians who asked me, “Would you like me to come to the hospital? Would you like me to pray? How are you feeling today?” And then I realized that I could just pick up the phone or stop by someone’s office and ask for these things. They taught me what to ask for, and they taught me that my needs can be met by the church (not just clergy, but all its members).

The truth is, I could have stopped by the church office when my father died or I went through my divorce and talked about my pain and need for Christian support. I could have talked to the priest when my mother died. Instead, I found support from my community at the time: my public high school, where God is also on the job. The story I tell is that the church wasn’t there for me, and while that may be true, it’s also true that I did not speak to the clergy or church members and say, “I need your support.” I thought I was an unimportant teenager.

Sometimes people who are very active at a church assume that this help will come their way more easily: They know me! I’m the choir director! I’ve pledged for ten years! I don’t think these church members believe they deserve more attention due to their church commitments; I think they expect that, because they are well known, they won’t fall off the radar.

But we have to get on the radar first before we can consider ourselves off the radar. And the way we get on the radar is to ask for help using the church’s expected methods of asking for help (such as calling the church office) as well as our own ways. Does your church have a pastoral care line? A pastoral care committee? An administrator who passes on concerns to a prayer chain? A really supportive group of people who meet at Denny’s on Friday mornings? It’s good to know what your church’s avenues of pastoral care are.

Consider this: I have been carrying my church’s pastoral care cell phone for 5 days in the past week, and it has not rung once.  And I work at a very large church. Either church members need to be more aware of this option and feel encouraged to use it, or the church needs to adapt to the ways people want to ask for help.

If we don’t get that help in the way we need, then we should state the need again with a more specific request about what would be helpful. That is, after all, what we do with people we love. When we ask for something and don’t receive it, we ask again more specifically: “When I asked you to wash the dishes, I meant sometime tonight.”

Granted, it can be very hard to state that need when one is hurting. I think it’s fair to reach out and say, “I don’t know what I need, but I’m in trouble.” During a family health crisis, I sat in my seminary chapel looking very grim and angry, feeling nothing but raw pain, and a friend asked me if I wanted her to pray with me. I burst into tears and started raging against God. Believe me, I got a very swift response from the priests and seminarians present in the chapel because, well, I let the spiritual pain show.

This asking for help (repeatedly) means doing the thing we Americans are not supposed to do: Be vulnerable. Show our weak side and admit that we are not completely self-sufficient. For this very reason, it is an important spiritual practice to ask for help, acknowledging our vulnerability and humility to others.

By doing so, we not only unmask the spiritual lie that we can handle everything ourselves, but we also unleash the Christ in the people around us: the healer, the comforter, the guide.

Operators are waiting…

12 Thoughts

  1. Your post couldn’t be more timely. Mom was hospitalized last night. I sent an email to the prayer circle and Deacon Aileen. In 3 minutes I had 2 emails saying prayers were with Mom. In 15 minutes I had a call from Deacon Aileen asking if Mom needed a visit. I felt the love and support. St Francis rocks! I got off the phone with Aileen and there was your posting. Well stated!

    1. Laura, thanks so much for letting me know. Your mom and you are definitely in my prayers, and I’m so glad (though not at all surprised) to hear that the prayer circle and Deacon Aileen are on the job. Keep asking! You know that you and your mother are very precious to me and the people of St. Francis.

  2. A wealth of such important information! Thanks so much for sharing your own experiences to teach the rest of us. By the way, you look cute in the Giant’s cap. Go Lincecum… And may God bless you beyond measure as you share his Love with people in your parish! Love, Linda

  3. Janine – I love this. It’s the same song I have been singing for years. Yes! Ask for help. Be un-American! Susan Van Dyke (EfM mentor training)

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  4. Thanks for this! I have wondered about Rectors who urge folks to tell them when they are in the hospital and yet many of the folks have never had a friendly conversation with the Rector when they are feeling well.

  5. Liz, you’re welcome! Of the many priests I have known and do know, rectors or not, all of them would come to the hospital to visit someone with a pastoral need. I think most rectors and other priests and usually quite happy to have a friendly conversation with people when those people are feeling well, too. Depending on the size of the church and the number of clergy, one might have to wait for an appointment. But still, priests like to be available for people at all stages in their spiritual journeys. At least I do!

  6. Asking for help is key. I had many calls, texts, and emails when I sent word out that my husband was in the hospital, not only prayers for him, but me. And, they asked how I was doing. I think that people are beginning to realize that the spouse/caregiver is under alot of pressure, too.

    1. Dear Jane, I believe that pastoral care for the family members of those in medical or other types of distress is very important. I’m glad to hear that you received that care. It was such an important development for me to realize that I could ask for it–and keep looking for it elsewhere if I didn’t get it initially.

  7. My son-in-law was a church organist. He was in intensive care at a hospital 20 miles from the church where he worked. His rector/employer was asked to come and would not. That’s right: he refused. Fortunately we had a priest friend who lived 45 miles away who was willing to come administer last rights.

    1. Dear M, I’m so sorry to hear about this. I want to speculate in the most generous way about that refusal: that the rector was exhausted from other duties, or emotionally unable to face an employee’s death. However, that is not helpful to you or the child who lost a spouse, and that refusal must have hurt a great deal. I’m heartened to hear you sought pastoral care elsewhere and received it. My spiritual director said to me once, “God always sends at least one.” I pray that God continues to send comfort to you and your family.

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